A Sense of Wilderness: Sara Chats with Translator Rhonda Mullins

Today, I'm honored to spotlight a book from beyond the northern border: Julie Demers' Little Beast, out from Canada's Coach House Books last month! Little Beast is, in fact, a little beast. At about 150 pages, it clocks in as a fairly quick read. However, Several of our staff members were bowled over by this small volume immediately. It merges fairy tale with adventure story, all seen through the eyes of a small girl with a full beard who must protect herself from suspicious townsfolk. I had the chance to chat with its translator, Rhonda Mullins, who is based in Montreal. She's the translator of several other books, including Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette (also from Coach House, and just listed today as a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award). We talked wilderness, cityscapes, and (even) embalming. Read on to learn more!

Sara: Little Beast was written in French, but I didn’t realize it was a Canadian book at first. Here in the US and especially in Texas, we have a huge relationship with the interplay between Spanish and English, and books translated from one into the other locally. It’s great to see another space in which two native languages work in relation to each other.

I just wanted to start off by asking you about translating in general. We’re huge proponents of literature in translation, so I’m sure our customers would want to know what led you to the field of translation to begin with.

Rhonda Mullins: I kind of fell ass-backwards into it. I love hearing translators talk about how they got into it, because for so many of them it’s just a series of coincidences and circumstances. in my case, I was working as a marketing writer in tech, in an environment just before the bubble, so this is a very volatile environ. at some point, after the last company I was with closed down, I thought okay, enough of this, i’m going to work as a writer. I won’t lay myself off! I started writing, freelance, and somebody called me to do translation one day. So, financial motivation made me say yes. So I thought, I’d better study this. I went back to school and did a certificate in translation. from there, commercial to literary. it really has been… I feel very fortunate I really enjoy what I do and yet it wasn’t really by design.

SB: Did you feel that your own experience with writing was necessary or useful when you came to the art of translating other people’s works?

RM: Absolutely. I live in a city that’s highly bilingual, people are really incredible in French and English. But often those people have a bit of a hard time when it comes to translation, because their ear is so divided. Even me; my ear will tend a little bit toward French.

The writing part of it is really about having an ear, a rhythm in your own language. For me, it’s been essential because translating is a form of writing and you need to be able to make it sound fluid, and not jar readers. The writing part of the puzzle is really important. That’s probably where I do best. There are translators who are incredible researchers, and sometimes I lose patience with that.

SB: Little Beast reads so beautifully. Some of it is just this eerie sense of atmosphere that the book has. It’s less perhaps to do with the era, which is the 1930’s, but nor is the book interested in the exact historical moment, I think. It’s more the creation of a fairy tale-like mood.

RM: That was my reaction when I read it. I was just charmed by it — that was the word I used with my publisher. Little Beast won me over because I pictured this girl careening around this landscape. It created such nice images in my mind.

SB: She is removed from so many interactions with the greater public, but her voice is so precise. Though the book feels like a fairy tale, she has her own voice and agency with the first person writing that is really unusual. Because of that experience of her being so determined, this book speaks as much to the greater experience of being an outsider, as it does as a fairy tale.

RM: I think that’s one of the things that really did charm me, was her. She has this sense of humor and purpose, and is exploring her sexuality — she’s just a fully formed character. I just saw her as this very determined little girl. That resonated with me.

Julie Demers’ writing was inspired by her own journals and diaries, so there were some things in there that she went and plucked out. I never got around to asking her about the outsider part of the equation.

You can’t get more outside than this, basically: she’s ostracized.

SB: In her case, it’s because she’s physically different-looking, but there’s also the further ostracizing that her mother and father enact on her. It seemingly comes from all directions.

RM: The mother relationship was a bit of a puzzle for me. What was motivating her desire to keep her daughter behind closed doors — aside from the obvious?

SB: It does feel like there’s something deeper going on there — as there does with so many traditional myths and stories.

About being at least in the same country as Julie, and a few of the people you’ve translated for: what is the communication process like for you as a translator?

RM: It’s nice because often I get to meet in person with the authors. Montreal is a fairly big location for writers, and translation as well. I generally got to sit down one-on-one with the authors.

Also, I find with a lot of the books I’ve worked on that there’s an element of landscape involved. And with the Canadian landscape, I feel like it helps me that I’ve been out in it. I’ve had occasion to translate something that was set in the woods when I’ve just come from camping, and I still have the smell of it. It helps set the mood.

I found that living in the same country is helpful that way. Any books set in or around the urban centers in Canada. I don’t have to do as much research because I know the place. I find that it’s been very helpful compared to when I’ve been trying to translate things from France — I’ve been to France and everything, but it’s that extra leap.

I spoke to a German translator; we’d worked on the same book, translating from French, in my case to English and in her case to German. This book is sort of set in the wilderness. She was talking about trying to convey, in German, the notion of wilderness. My understanding of Germans is that they are very invested in the outdoors, but she said that these are such vast expanses, it was very difficult for her to come up with language. At least I have a first-hand view of where we are.

SB: In Houston, our idea of landscape is multiple layers of freeways, unfortunately. *laughs*

RM: I go into the more tame wilderness, admittedly. Just getting a sense of where you are is very helpful. Sometimes it’s jarring to read Canadian books translated by someone in Europe. it can be jarring. It’s nice when the translation is able to be done locally.

SB: The book definitely has a greater sense of these huge forested areas that are kind of impenetrable to the greater public. It’s such a huge landscape, and it’s so vast and mysterious, and can hide so much. This book is so small, and yet it conveys that huge sense of space.

RM: I think that’s one of the things that won me over. Julie really managed to pack a lot in there without writing in a way that’s dense. She just managed to grab the landscape and get it down on the page with a lot of economy. I am a little perplexed by how that book came together, because it is so unusual, and conveys so much in such a short space.

SB: Do you find it easier to translate shorter books and novellas like this, or do you find that they pose their own complexities that are just different?

RM: You always sort of think, like, “oh, I’ll knock that out on the train home.” *laughs*

You get over-confident. In the shorter ones, too, I’ve had occasion to translate a few short books, and then one book with very short sentences. You go, okay, this is going to be a cake walk. But the shorter it is, the more every word counts. So i’m going to have to stop thinking in those terms.

When you have this hundred thousand word book, you can kind of get lost in the sentences and the chapters. but I find with these shorter ones, I feel the pressure.

SB: Almost like poetry. There are parts in Little Beast where the language is so sparse it does become incredibly poetic. There are these empty pages with two or three lines on them.

RM: I had a nice meeting with Julie when she took me through some of those passages. It was helpful to have her describe what was in her head when she was doing it.

It is a double-edged sword when the author’s language skills are such that they can weigh in. But there is a certain level of, well, you feel a certain level of responsibility and you want to make sure that you’re conveying their work in a way that is meaningful and that honors it.

SB: Now that you’ve finished this and it’s out into the world, have you talked with Julie since it was finished?

RM: Coach House produces such beautiful books. I’ll be interested to see what she thinks of the book as an object.

The process for the cover is that we get a few design choices. Sometimes the final image is in there, sometimes it isn’t and we have to keep looking. That cover [of Little Beast] was unanimous; pretty much everyone loved the design.

SB: Last but not least, are you working on any translations with Coach House right now, or any others you’re particularly excited to talk about?

RM: I’m working on a book for Coach House. Again, very short; much shorter even than Julie’s, so it’s almost a long essay. It’s very poetic writing, looking at cases of an embalmer who worked in Quebec in the 50’s, 60’s, and after. It’s kind of gruesome.

SB: Nonfiction? Fiction? Both?

RM: Interesting question… I met with the author this week. I believe it’s categorized as fiction. I asked her and she said, “it’s kind of poetry,” but we’ll leave that aside. It’s based on a true account, though I believe she might depart from fact sometimes (whatever that might mean).

SB: Has that taken a lot of research for you?

RM: I’m still doing it. I’ve ended up on all these mortuary supply websites, and it’s kind of eye opening to see the kind of equipment they need to use (for example, prosthetic bits if a body is going to be viewed, to make sure everything looks intact). It’s a bit of a rabbit hole.

There are days when I’m working on it, and I have to back off a little bit and work on something lighter. It’s beautifully written, and it’s powerful. That’s why I loved it so much. It’s moving, but it doesn’t hold back on the details.

Little Beast Cover Image
By Julie DeMers, Rhonda Mullins (Translator)
$16.95
ISBN: 9781552453667
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Coach House Books - April 24th, 2018

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